So, How and Why Did Elm Treason Go Acoustic?

We are not about novelty.

The minute you are, then the substance of what you do slips reflexively into second place behind that novelty.

It would be a grand mistake – a strategic misstep – to promote what we do as “acoustic-based rock.” (We found that out the hard way). The word “acoustic” possesses very hard and steady connotations in the minds of the music-listening public. That word, whether we like it or not, triggers preconceptions. It already lives in the minds of the public in very specific places. Thus, even if we came out with an album of original tunes that had the style and feel of Slayer or early Metallica, promoting that record with the word “acoustic” would invariably conjure of images of singer-songwriter folkies or moody open-mic-night solo strummers pouring their hearts out. People’s heads would instinctively turn toward artists like Cat Stevens, Joni Mitchell, Harry Chapin or James Taylor (all great artists, by the way) before hearing a single note of what we’d done, simply because that word was attached to it.

The resulting mismatch in receptive audiences to the actual material would be painfully palpable (as we also learned the hard way).

Without question, the word “acoustic” is powerful…. but it isn’t the center of what we do. Yes, it gives us our sound, our texture (i.e, using acoustic guitars in often “non-traditional” acoustic ways), but that’s not what Elm Treason is about.

It is the music that must come first. The songs. The vibe. The feel. That “rock and roll” thing……. NOT the choice of instruments. The fact is, people walk away humming a song’s chorus, not reflecting on the arrangement. People repeat riffs over and over in their minds, or break into killer “air guitar” solos or sing melodies; they don’t reflect on the instrumentation. Not at first, anyway. All of that “other” stuff – guitars used, drum kits played, the tone of the instruments, choice of amps, etc – comes later….after you find out you love the song. That’s when you start moving into “music geek” territory – a place, incidentally, Bobby and I permanently hang our hats when it comes to the music we love.

However, I think it’s good to explain – for those interested – how we came to create this “Elm Treason” sound. We do get asked this quite a bit, so here goes.

In studio, Elm Treason does what most bands do – they employ some form of marriage between drum (or percussion) and bass line to serve as the foundation of a song. Then, depending on the nature of the vibe, there follows a strategic placement of instruments – pianos, percussion, horns, whatever. In the context of a band that plays rock and roll (or some form of rock music), the instrument that invariably lives at the core of it all, more times than not, is the guitar.

That delicious guitar.

During the early sessions of what would eventually yield our first album, “DAYS OF REACTION,” we initially attempted to go fairly traditional in rock and roll terms: electric guitars, delicious overdrive, drums, bass, so on…

Still, we were hoping to sound somewhat fresh – if not familiar. We attempted to gut the new classic rock archetype that was bristling about under the radar with a collection of songs that blended together influences stretching the collective soundscape.

These early recordings we made were raw and straight forward with minimal post production. They weren’t lo-fi by any means, but deliberately made to sound streamlined and vintage – created to be a familiar mélange of guitars, bass and drums with a few dashes of sound-pepper and groove-paprika sprinkled in for flavor.

We did manage to create what we felt was a nicely-rounded collection of vibes across those early recordings: a taste of classic rock, a little soul, some finger-picking acoustic sweetness, a blast of alt-psychedlia, and so on.

We started sharing these songs online as we were finishing them. We were promoting these songs as being part of our soon-to-be-released album “DAYS OF REACTION.” The common thread was its guitar-centric core, bound smoothly with what we called a “new vintage” vibe.

Of course, fate would ultimately send us on a path we hadn’t anticipated – to be an acoustic-guitar based band that actually tried to rock, complete with grooves and riffs more historically suited for distortion and cranked amps. We wanted to be a guitar-hero, air-guitar-inspiring band that didn’t plug in.

We still called what we were doing the  “new vintage in indie rock and roll,” but we wanted to prove that acoustic guitars driving a full band set-up could, indeed, rock as much as we believed they could. We chose to  step  out  of  the realm  of what one might reflexively think of when they hear the words “acoustic rock.”

Thus, we promoted our first two albums – “DAYS OF REACTION” and “ACOUSTIC TREASON” – with such quotes as “not your daddy’s acoustic music” and “this ain’t your mama’s acoustic sound.”

They worked quite well as tag lines.

Of course, with that came creative obligations. We had to make sure the music met those expectations. Yet, during the early stages of putting the music together, while sharing our works-in-progress with selected friends and family, we were receiving some feedback suggesting that we probably “should have” kept our sound electric-guitar based. Equally, we fielded feedback that actually criticized what we were doing with our acoustic guitars.

You’re losing the soul of what acoustic guitars were made for,” was one comment.

Don’t betray the essence of being unplugged,” was another.

You might as well just stay electric if that’s what you’re going to do,” was yet another.

Coming to the realization that we were, in the minds of some, committing an act of treason against the notion of what an acoustic guitar based album should be, the light bulbs started to pop on over skulls with the conspicuousness of leftover April Christmas icicle lights. As long as we were being traitors to the Fraternity of the Resonating Sound Hole, why not just go with it? Hence the titles of our second and third albums: ACOUSTIC TREASON and RHYME AND TREASON.

But the real question is…why? Why embrace this? Why go with this? Why actually proceed with acoustic guitars as the foundation of our sound after getting such positive feedback on our original direction of delicious plugged-in goodness? Wouldn’t it be limiting? Or considered a gimmick? What the hell is wrong with you two?

Well, the meme-ready, sound-bite-sized answer is that we just love the honesty of acoustic guitars. They are always intimate, accessible and real, no matter what’s being played. There’s simply nowhere to hide behind an acoustic guitar. It’s challenging.

And frankly, Bobby and I just adore the sound and texture the acoustic guitar brings to a song – particularly when the song is a rocker.

Not to mention we weren’t really hearing anyone else doing that with acoustic guitars.

But let’s backtrack for a moment for a more detailed answer…

Because we recorded our earliest songs ourselves, we knew we would have to eventually put together a full band for live shows (which we obviously hadn’t done yet). However, as we quickly started getting requests to play on TV and in clubs based on the sharing of those early electric-versions, it was obvious we had to assemble something we could actually recreate live as a twosome. (The fact is: musicians simply don’t turn down chances to play live….never ever).

So, we re-invented most of the songs we had shared online as unplugged entities, turning them into completely re-worked acoustic-based arrangements that we could perform almost anywhere on short notice. However, we were also keenly aware that we could not – would not – ever ever want to appear as just two guys sitting there, strumming acoustic guitars on stage.

How monumentally boring.

It would be antithetical to what Elm Treason does. It would not be a “new vintage” vibe of any kind. It would, frankly, be a snore-fest.

So, we constructed these new two-man unplugged arrangements to rock, roll, glide, sway and swing (as was our wont), all the while maintaining our musical complexities and nuances.

We privately shared some of these acoustic re-workings with friends and fans who had been the most enthusiastic about our music.

At first, we thought we might have made a mistake. Our acoustic reformation didn’t quite go over as well as we had hoped.

But it would soon change.

There were actually some people pleasantly surprised at what we had done. They were telling us that these new acoustic arrangements sounded like brand new songs, distinct and unique on their own. Feedback eventually became almost entirely positive, especially on the various radio shows we performed on while promoting ourselves.

We were having so much fun and loving the results to such a degree that we decided to officially release our first full length album featuring these new acoustic arrangements of our songs.

Thus, a new goal for us – no small task (based on confidence and exuberance, rather than arrogance) – became REDEFINING how acoustic guitars were to be used in rock n roll. (The primary goal, of course, was – and always is – to write top quality songs). This would be our mission. We chose to accept it…and our tapes did not self destruct within five seconds, thankfully.

Hence, our three albums (as of this writing): DAYS OF REACTION, ACOUSTIC TREASON and RHYME AND TREASON …and the Elm Treason sound.

There you go.


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Andy Roman

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